As a sommelier, my job is to pair wines with a guest's dinner, to find the perfect wine that speaks to that guest but also matches the flavors and textures of a dish from my chef. I fell into the world of wine while trying to build my first career: Before I ever picked up a decanter professionally, I spent my evenings delving into the works of Mahler, Stravinsky and Reich as a professional percussionist.
The culinary world felt light years away from a career as a classical musician. But just as I might have analyzed the harmony of a piece to plot out phrases and thematic development, I discovered that planning a menu and pairings required the same type of thinking. I get to conduct my guests through their experience, leading them thematically from one wine to the next, using taste and texture to create a seamless and logical progression, just as a music director might create a program for an evening's concert. So, if I may, let us start this evening's menu.
Watching the bubbles in a glass of Champagne is like watching a crowd of dancers waltz: a whirling, swirling froth of skirts swimming around one another in endless progression. It is a light and flowing affair.
Ravel has taken the classic dance and colored it with the broad palate of the French Impressionists. His collection of waltzes infuses the typical frivolity with a darkness, a richness, a sense of the macabre. This is not the light and zesty waltz of Johann Strauss, but a densely layered one. Ravel plays rhythmic patterns across bar lines, keeping the listener floating along in a dizzying, tipsy flow.
Just as Ravel incorporates more dense harmonies, percussion and rhythmic variations as the waltz progresses, the Champagne pulls out more and more layers of creamy nuttiness with each sip, until the initial lightness is folded around decadent flavors of truffles, almond cake and honey. The Champagne is densely orchestrated with fresh flavors of brioche and ripe, luscious tree fruit: deeper, richer, darker layers.
The sounds of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with its hints of melancholy, remind one of sweetness past. It is a beautifully layered rhapsody, a musical form which freely combines disparate themes and moods. "Voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds" is juxtaposed with the "iron moan" and "bleak spark crackling and cursing" of the urban landscape. Shifting orchestration, from the lyricism of the oboe to the staccato brass, highlights these changes in mood.
Winemaker Ted Lemon's rosé (alas, I fear it is all but gone now, like the singer's childhood) is the perfect companion to "that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street." It is, perhaps, the portion of evening where the clouds turn the faintest color of rose.
This was a wistful wine, made in a year when wildfires made it nigh impossible to make a full red — too smoky even for me, a Scotch drinker. But with just the lightest touch of pink, this wine hints at the smoke, wafting from my neighbor's barbecue, touched with the wild summer strawberries that I remember picking as a child. Just as Barber weaves different themes and orchestration throughout his work, so too does the winemaker layer these flavors with a deft and delicate touch. The balance of bright and lively fruit with dark, brooding smoke adds heft and maturity to an otherwise simple and summery wine.
I still remember the first time I performed Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. The fanfare is big. I mean, really big. It is all trumpets and horns and drums. It is loud. It is glorious. For a drummer, it doesn't get much better than that.
There may not be a more "American" piece of classical music than the Fanfare, other than Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture (weird, isn't it, that the story of the Russian triumph over the French has become the poster child for July 4th concerts?). What is it about Copland's writing that is so quintessentially American?
When I listen to the Fanfare, in my mind's eye, I can see the camera flying over fields of grain in America's heartland; of the cavernous maw of the Grand Canyon; of the sunlight glinting off skyscrapers. This is music that creates pictures. And it is about all what's great in America.
The Kistler, too, is Prime America. It is big, and mouth-filling, and packed with flavor. There is an open honesty about what it is: Wisconsin butter, tall American oak trees, and glorious, sun-kissed California fruit. It's over the top, sure, but it is truly, unabashedly American. And while Chardonnay is beloved by the Common Man (and Woman), it is treasured because it is majestic, glorious and grand: America the Beautiful, indeed.
It is time for the final course, the grand finale. It is time for some meat.
The final movement of Respighi's symphonic poem depicts the march of the Roman army as it makes its way past the towering pines of the Appian Way. The blazing morning sun is depicted in the strings and trumpets, fiery and full as it shines down upon the line of soldiers through the tree branches. The pines' roots dig deep, grounded in solidity, holding firm to rock and soil and dark, rich earth. The earth below is portrayed in the organ's pedal b-flat, in the low brass, in the driving percussive rhythm, rumbling beneath the soldiers' incessant lock step.
Elisabeta Foradori's "Granato" Teroldego has a similar duality. Pouring this wine into a glass releases an overwhelming aroma of crushed berries, ripe cherries and dark chocolate. It grows, though, becoming ever more intense in its aromatics, like the long line of Roman soldiers making its way from beneath the trees. Underneath, there is a sanguine quality of blood, muscle and freshly turned earth.
This pairing is about that balance between grace and intensity. Both the music and the wine are powerful and intense, building and building to final climax. And yet they both wield that intensity with a refined hand, crafting, not bludgeoning. Each is like a fine roast: profound in its simplicity, timeless and unparalleled.
A tiny crystal glass appears at your shoulder, and a thin stream of bright red liquid flows, hugging the sides of the glass. You lift it to your mouth and take a tiny sip.
The sweet, candied taste of crushed raspberries fills your mouth, with loads of mulling spices and a pure burst of sugary sweetness. You are instantly transported to that first bite of stolen sweets on Christmas morning, waiting for the moment when your parents awoke and FINALLY came down so you could open presents. Before they made it out of their bedroom and rubbed the sleep from their eyes, you had carefully pried the candied cherries off the top of the yule-cake (Scandinavian Christmas bread, for those of you who have never experienced Christmas morning with my wife's Norwegian family). Sweet, sugary, fluorescent-colored candied cherries.
And yet, the acidity of this wine dances delicately as it seemingly floats across your palate, whirling not with the frivolity of the waltz that began the evening, but a simple, single dancer tracing her steps across your tongue and bringing that sweet smile of memory of your first time seeing 'The Nutcracker' performed live.
If, perhaps, you had an extra glass of the Teroldego, or finished the bottle of Kistler, perhaps your dance of the Sugar plums will be a little more swing-y, and be a bit more like Mr. Ellington and Mr. Strayhorn's version.